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Monday, November 19, 2007

The Russian People Get What they Asked For

Writing for Transitions Online, Galina Stolyarova of the St. Petersburg Times says that journalists (and the people of Russia themselves) have no one to blame but themselves for the sorry state of the news media in Russia.

Journalists call it "bulking up.” This is when an editorial office receives a list of recommendations from an influential third party on how to cover a specific event, organization or personality. Although everyone in Russian journalism knows all about bulking up, and it gets gossiped about and debated late into the night, it hasn’t surfaced in the news pages. Until now. It surfaced when a Just Russia politician, Oksana Dmitriyeva, told reporters on 30 October of a memo that she alleged had been distributed through the pro-government media. She claimed it specified, in great detail, how journalists should go about covering a recent revelation by a St. Petersburg politician belonging to the Just Russia party.

That politician is Alexei Timofeyev, who was excluded from Just Russia in October after he astounded colleagues with a statement he made during a session of the St. Petersburg city legislature. In it he called for the party to dissolve itself on the grounds that “since Vladimir Putin is now Number One on the United Russia party list, Putin’s true supporters can no longer belong to another party and challenge the president.”

The memo, or at least a copy of it that I have in front of me, is exhaustive. It includes advice on who can be quoted on the story, in what order and at what length; what questions should be asked; what details should be emphasized; and what facts should be skipped. It is not clear who developed the instructions on how to report the story. The memo included a question for Dmitriyeva herself, one of Russia’s most respected economists and long-standing politicians. “Admit, Ms. Dmitriyeva, that you now regret your mistake, yet you still stick to it,” reads the question. "Let’s face it, you lost the battle long ago." The memo even goes as far as to suggest to editors what ordinary people should “say” in commentary sections. Surprise, surprise! It says they should condemn and ridicule the Just Russia party.

Obviously you couldn’t help wondering if the memo was a forgery, created to blow up in the face of Dmitriyeva or anyone else who revealed it. Yet it first appeared on an opposition website on the night before a number of news reports which seemed to abide by the instructions. Just Russia took the matter seriously. The party hired an expert to carry out a linguistic analysis of both the memorandum and the various articles that followed it in the St. Petersburg media. The conclusion, delivered by Sergei Mikhailov, a professor of international journalism at St. Petersburg State University, was unequivocal. “A whole range of recommendations were followed in the stories that we have examined,” the expert said. “Undoubtedly, the media – willingly or not – ended up being involved in a campaign aimed at discrediting the Just Russia party.”

But this is not the first time I have seen a whole string of pro-Kremlin media reports appear which resemble each other in striking detail.

Take, for instance, the coverage of the dissenter's marches earlier this year. State-run television channels and state-influenced newspapers did not quote any of the protesters or their leaders. Instead each outlet reproduced the same quotes from the authorities, and each accompanied the news with almost identical commentary. In modern Russia, censorship occurs in forms that are often invisible and it’s therefore hard to prove the censorship. However, the Timofeyev case marks the first time when what appear to be instructions from on high have been leaked.


One former regional editor of a national newspaper that challenges the Kremlin told me of the pressure he used to face. He would get lengthy phone calls from a senior city official who would lecture him about “overly critical coverage.”

“I only tolerated these conversations because the caller was a woman,” he said. “If it had been a man I would have hung up on him or told him where to go.”

Furthermore, journalists who do report cases of pressure on the media can find themselves in trouble with the authorities.

In one case, my home newspaper, the English-language St. Petersburg Times, came under fire from city authorities last fall when it published an article about another newspaper getting into hot water after reporting on an angry petition to Putin protesting against rampant in-fill construction in St. Petersburg. This practice, say critics, tramples on history by inserting jarring modern buildings into the elegant architectural landscape.

According to the article, the newspaper editor revealed that her staff had come under pressure from the local authorities over publication of the petition. The editor was forced to retract her comments to the Times. And she complained to the Times alleging that her reputation and that of her paper had been "tainted" by misreporting. The editor later admitted privately that she’d been pressured by officials into retracting her comments.

In the Timofeyev example, the president of the Baltic Lawyers Collegium, Yury Novolodsky, said legal redress for Just Russia would appear to be a hopeless cause. He believes no court would be likely to accept the case because of the difficulty in establishing which person or organization sent out the instructions.

The leak, although it remains anonymous, may actually be a healthy sign. Partly because the mole who brought it to light could presumably no longer bear the shame of being a puppet. But it may also be that the resulting publicity will provoke some hard thinking among the most slavish sections of the media about just how low they have fallen.


Public trust in Russian journalism has plummeted since the late 1980s, when the country’s media, liberated by perestroika, came briefly to life. Journalists have no one to blame but ourselves for this situation. It is we who have sacrificed our image as champions of freedom by bowing to the shameful modern conventions of “bulking up” and becoming once again mere mouthpieces for the Kremlin and its regional lieutenants. For the public, it’s a bit like buying a magazine and finding it’s been padded out with pages from the telephone directory. Or ordering a drink only to find the vodka is 50 percent water.

In the end, everything depends on the integrity of the individual journalist. Although the independent media have been disappearing since the 1990s, there are still some journalists in Russia to whom nobody would dare to offer a bribe. It is obvious from their writing that they would not compromise what they stand for. It is high time news organizations wake up, atrophied and feeble though they may be. For if they don't act fast to restore their standards, what point is there in their continued existence?

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